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The Flight to Drone Innovation Now Runs Through Winston-Salem

UPS drone

One step at a time, the drone delivery industry is making important advances in U.S. healthcare logistics, fulfilling a promise to speed delivery of medicines and medical supplies and ultimately, help save lives. For those of us in the logistics business, there is no higher calling.

The journey requires patience, but our primary goal of improving patient outcomes is exhilarating. Victories large and small punctuate the story of drone delivery at UPS.

We celebrate them all because these are the moments that fuel our drive to be the leader in this nascent industry.

A new victory

Today we are delighted to mark a new victory for healthcare logistics, one that will help patients today while propelling us toward future achievements.

Our drone delivery subsidiary UPS Flight Forward (UPSFF) and iQ Healthtech Labs have collaborated to launch a commercial drone delivery service at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It uses a hub-and-spoke routing model — the first of its kind — to provide rapid delivery for time- and temperature-sensitive medical supplies.

Starting today, UPSFF began operating Matternet’s M2 drones on two routes from one location at Wake Forest Baptist to two other health system locations. This structure enables UPSFF to add new delivery routes more efficiently than would be possible with a point-to-point delivery operation.

One route is for drones carrying specialty infusion medicines. Developed and designed for individual patients, these medicines are not commercially available.

Such medicines are also costly and expire quickly. They require fast delivery. So delivery by drone within minutes is a better option than ground transportation, which is vulnerable to traffic delays and can take much longer.

Our second route at Wake Forest is for drones carrying on-demand supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks for medical professionals in their fight against the highly contagious coronavirus.

Throughout the ongoing pandemic, UPS has worked with government agencies, healthcare organizations and others to support relief efforts and transport vital and life-saving supplies when and wherever needed.

Healthcare logistics opportunities

As part of the initiative at Wake Forest, UPS Flight Forward also will establish an office in the iQ Healthtech Labs headquarters to evaluate additional delivery routes and drone use cases. That means we’ll continually explore the nuances of healthcare logistics and new opportunities to add routes and services not currently available.

For example, we aspire to launch a route for drones to fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. Such routes are not routine as they require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

UPSFF operates in lockstep with the FAA. In fact, for years, we have provided regulators with insights — derived from our tests and commercial operations — into drone delivery. These insights inform the policies that regulators make to ensure safe and efficient drone delivery in the United States.

Each milestone we hit yields a deeper understanding of drone technology and lessons on how we can effectively deploy drones on healthcare campuses and in other industries such as retail or industrial supply chains. We’ve built a pretty good track record so far.

The race to innovate

Since March 2019, when we started the first ongoing, revenue-generating drone delivery service at WakeMed’s flagship hospital and campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, we have flown more than 2,000 paid commercial flights across that campus and initiated similar services on other U.S. healthcare campuses.

A few months after launching the WakeMed operation, UPS made history again when we created UPS Flight Forward, which later earned the FAA’s standard Part 135 Standard certification to operate as a drone airline.

“The pioneers in this business have learned a lot in their race to innovate. But the greatest lesson is that each successful initiative (and better understanding each failure) opens the door to the next victory.”

UPSFF also recently established drone service to deliver prescription medicines for a retirement community in Florida. The service provides an option for seniors at higher risk for coronavirus infection to receive prescriptions without going to a pharmacy.

Innovation on this scale takes time and patience. It can’t happen all at once. But there’s no denying that the U.S. drone delivery industry has come a long way in a little over a year.

The pioneers in this business have learned a lot in their race to innovate. But the greatest lesson is that each successful initiative (and better understanding each failure) opens the door to the next victory.

I can’t wait to step into this future.

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